Criminal defence barristers walked out of court for the first time in legal history yesterday to protest over government plans to cut their fees by between 17.5 and 30% as the Ministry of Justice seeks to cut £220 million from the legal aid budget.
Demonstrations were held outside of crown courts up and down the country as well as London’s Central Criminal Court, aka the Old Bailey, with speakers warning of the catastrophic effects the cuts will have on justice as the best barristers will leave the profession.
The Minister for Justice, Chris Grayling, has justified the move by portraying them as fat-cats on hundreds of thousands a year while the head of the Criminal Bar Association, Nigel Lithman QC, has described talented and hard-working barristers working on little more than a teacher or nurse.
So who is telling the truth and what do they really earn?
The Daily Express reported that six legal aid barristers were on more than £500,000 based on government figures released last week while 1,275 received more than £100,000.
However, these figures are wrong as the government statistics include earnings for barristers carrying out work for the Crown Prosecution Service, which is not funded by legal aid.
Removing CPS fees from the statistics would knock £62m off the amount earned by the 1,275 and significantly reduce the number of barristers claimed to be earning more than £100k through legal aid. It would also reduce the number earning over £500k from six to four.
Furthermore the government statistics are for the amounts it paid out to barristers before VAT and expenses – such as rent for their chambers, payments to legal experts they employ during a case, as well as any travel and accommodation – are deducted.
Halfway down the story the Express points out that the highest paid barrister, on £675,000, was actually paid £380,000 after expenses.
It seems the Daily Mail went to greater lengths to get more accurate figures for the most highly paid barristers’ earnings by focusing on their taxable income (after VAT and expenses) when it published a report on the bar’s top earners.
It reported that the top three barristers carrying out legal aid work, including Mr Lithman, earned more than £250,000 in 2012/13 and listed a further four who were paid more than £100,000.
Although it chose to ignore the sums the majority of barristers are actually earning because away from the headline figures the reality is somewhat less shocking.
Based on the government’s own statistics around 25% of barristers were paid less than £20k and 50% were paid less than £100k and that’s before VAT and expenses are deducted.
The average (mean) earnings is around £46k gross. That’s £37k after VAT and less after other expenses are excluded (the government claimed average earnings for a barrister is £72k gross but that figure includes prosecution work for the crown, which, again, is not funded by legal aid).
The government also pointed out in its report: “The amounts paid may represent payments for work covering many years” and “the amount attributed to a barrister may include payments subsequently made to other barristers as remuneration for work carried out on behalf of the named barrister”.
Like the Express, the MOJ also chose to go with the misleading statistics when it told the paper: “Latest figures show more than 1,200 barristers judged to be working full time on taxpayer funded criminal work received £100,000 each in fee income last year, with six barristers receiving more than £500,000 each.”
Note the MoJ statement describes barristers doing ‘taxpayer funded criminal work’ as opposed to work funded by legal aid as it has misleadingly included CPS earnings in its figures. Fees for lawyers representing the government are not due to be cut; only fees for lawyers representing the public.
Responding to the figures given to the Daily Mail, Nigel Lithman QC, wrote in a message on the CBA website yesterday: ‘The figures given were duff. They revealed how much a relatively small amount of the criminal bar earned over £100,000. ie £80,000 ex VAT, before expenses. Why would they not want to have published the underlying figures as to what the ‘average’ barrister earns?’
Well, as any public relations officer, and journalist, knows people are quickly turned off by statistics and are unlikely to read an article explaining them – should it ever get published – making it easy to publish misleading statistics confident in the knowledge that few will challenge them and even fewer will be bothered to listen to those who do.